Nebraska weather is perennially odd, but especially odd during the crossover weeks of late winter and early spring. During this time, it’s not uncommon for the weather to be relatively balmy one day, with plenty of sun and blue skies (enough to make you want to break out the shorts and sandals), but while you sleep that night with visions of sunny days floating through your dreams, several inches of snow will appear out of nowhere and blanket the city.
This can wreak havoc with one’s psyche, especially if you’re at all prone to some form of seasonal affective disorder. This constant lurching between opposite ends of the weather spectrum induces a strange kind of nostalgia and longing; you get just enough of a taste of spring to remember all of those gloriously warm and balmy days of yesteryear (which of course, are so much better as memories than they probably really were) and yet the sudden and shocking shifts back to winter weather, where Jack Frost comes howling back with a vengeance, causes one to wonder, with no small amount of despair, if the ice and sleet are ever going to disappear.
I mention all of this because the title track from Northerner’s debut full-length captures all of that climatological give and take in a way that took me by surprise. I’m always amazed at how the music that lands on my desk, and that spends the most time on my headphones is that which most closely mirrors the weather outside my windows. And as we’ve ping-ponged back and forth between winter and spring during the last few weeks, The Ridings has provided a fitting soundtrack.
Musically, it’s the sort of acoustic/electronic hybrid that everyone seems to be doing these days. But the breezy grace with which Martin Cummings (who records under the Northerner moniker) pulls it off is far from clichéd and refreshing — as refreshing as those rare balmy days that break up the winter dreariness.
Synth pads create a dreamy backdrop for field recordings (of rain, babbling brooks, or melting ice, I can’t quite tell) and crystalline guitars that evoke the most pastoral moments of Talk Talk’s latter day output as filtered through the nostalgist tones of Epic45 and July Skies. It’s an expansive track, the sort of thing you just want to play with the top down while enjoying a long country drive on the first real day of spring. And yet, as the track progresses, dissonant guitar screeches and squalls emerge, which, while not unpleasant, bring a sort of chill back into the song. A chill that is so appropriate these days.
After a track that beautiful, the remainder of The Ridings has a lot to live up to, and frankly, it becomes something of a hit-or-miss affair. Some of the tracks approach (but don’t quite reach) the lovely musicality of “The Ridings,” whereas others opt for something more abstract and indistinct.
In the best moments, Cummings achieves a sort of kaleidoscopic sound that plays off your ears like light filtering through a cracked prism. There’s something hypnotic about the way in which “J C De M“ ‘s various layers of guitar and electronics bounce back and forth between your ears. And for a little over three minutes, “Fin” unfolds in all sorts of unexpected ways via bowed and plucked guitar, metallic chimes, and electronic detritus. It never really comes together, but that actually enhances the emotional resonance — you find yourself a little wistful at what is merely implied or hinted at by the music.
But other tracks, like the ironically titled “Direction” and “Lost Logic,” though containing similar musical ingredients, just never manage to congeal and resonate like “Fin.”
The only other track that comes close to “The Ridings” for me is “Cull.” Here, Cummings nearly eschews organic sounds altogether and plunges headlong into the icy waters of ghostly, glitch‑y dub (think Burial and Zen Sauvage slowly sinking into the Arctic Ocean’s depths). Sparse guitar figures emerge, sounding as if they’re in the very act of turning to ice, while a submerged bassline moves at an appropriately glacial pace. It’s an immersive and haunting sound, and one that I’d love to see Cummings further explore in the future.
Much to his credit, Cummings never lets any of his songs — even the better ones — last long. Most of them are less than four minutes, which might seem odd for music as atmospheric as this. But brevity is both the soul of wit and of ambient music, and the shortness of these pieces only enhances the beauty contained therein (and this is true, even of the lesser successful tracks).
Much like those too-early spring days that serve as an oasis of sorts in the midst of winter, they’re gone too soon, over before they could barely make a dent or impression. But what little impression they make can nevertheless be substantial and lasting, like a sudden day of sun and clear skies in the middle of February that feels like a miracle, and a reminder that winter, with all of its dreariness and gloominess, is, indeed, on the way out, and warmer and gentler days do indeed lie ahead.
As an added bonus, The Ridings comes with disc full of remixes courtesy of such luminaries as Bracken, The Declining Winter, Epic45, and Portal. Fieldhead’s remix of “Cull” goes even further into abstraction, drowning the original’s echoing glitch in even more echo until the song achieves a sort of cavernous, glacial tone that ups the wintry gloom. Bracken’s remix of “Fin” is an easy fave, and moves in an opposite direction then Fieldhead; Chris Adams takes one of the album’s more abstract songs and anchors it down with dubby beats and cut-up vocals.
Glen Shipley’s remix of “The Cut” injects some interesting humor, creating an amusing hip-hop pastiche with vocal shout-outs sliced n’ diced over some (relatively) funky rhythms. Epic45 applies their trademark brand of autumnal, shoegaze-inspired haze to “Caroline,” and simultaneous hearkens back to Flying Saucer Attack’s halcyon days. And finally, Yuri Lugovskoy wraps things up with a version of “Titus” that reduces the original’s coruscating guitar tones to their most abstract form, distilled down to a single horizon-line of twinkling, glittering electronic pulses that play across your speakers like the final rays of a wintry sunset filtering through the city.